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Taking the Declaration Seriously
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I don’t know what got into them, those hard-nosed business executives who sit on AEI’s Board of Trustees, back in 1978 when they invited a theologian from Syracuse University to move to Washington and join the Institute s research staff. But they were onto something big, and no AEI appointment has been more prescient than that of Michael Novak to our George Fredrick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy, established through the generosity of the Jewett family, our former Board chairman Dick Madden (who is here this evening), and the Potlatch Corporation.
There was, perhaps, something in the air. In that same year, the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, a profound anti-Communist who had faced and fought Communist religious and civil persecution first-hand, became Pope John Paul II. In two years, Ronald Reagan would bring to the leadership of the West a new, unflinching moral vocabulary, epitomized in his 1983 Evil Empire Speech, that would shake the Soviet system to its foundations.
But Novak was himself a constituent part and, to many, a critical part, of that air. It was a new breath of freedom that succeeded by reversing the then-prevailing assumption that moral truth, political institutions, and economic welfare are separate and often antithetical subjects by insisting that they are one and indivisible. At AEI he wrote The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, published in 1982 and by 1984 in wide underground circulation behind the Iron Curtain (it was translated with Novak’s clandestine permission and assistance, thus vindicating AEI’s position on the importance of intellectual property rights in emerging markets). All of the revolutionary leaders of the 1980s attested to the influence of that book on their thoughts and actions. Solidarity itself appropriated the term democratic capitalism to describe the goal of its struggle against socialism; and in this decade, after the fall, Michael has been treated as a conquering intellectual hero throughout central and eastern Europe, including in his own ancestral Slovakia.
He may be parading further east sometime soon. Democratic Capitalism has recently been published in Chinese in the People s Republic of China, and the Party, by restricting circulation and excising the book’s religious passages, can only heighten interest in its secrets.
At home, Novak’s influence has been so pervasive as to become invisible, absorbed into the political and intellectual atmosphere, transforming the chemistry of discourse. When he received the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, I tried to explain to a group of young people at AEI the achievements that had justified an honor bestowed on Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. They were baffled and uncomprehending. Novak was like the Nobel Prize economist whose theories, radical and unsettling when first propounded, seem obvious to everyone who reads about them thirty years later in The New York Times news story. Today it is important to recall how bold it was in the age of Nader to use capitalism in other than a pejorative sense, and how outrageous it was to couple capitalism with democracy at a time when socialism, dressed up as social democracy, still held the moral high ground. Subsidiary notions like empowerment and mediating structures were simply strange, although Novak would be the first to insist that the ideas they described were ancient.
Today these Novakian terms are commonplace, and the rhetorical shift registers tectonic shifts at the level of practice and policy. The current popular prestige of private enterprise and entrepreneurship would never have come to pass if the market economy had continued to be understood as a value-free engine of material welfare and personal gratification, rather than as a noble and morally demanding institution as well (what Novak calls business as a calling). The exciting devolution of social welfare programs and primary schooling from government to church, community, and other private organizations would never have come so far in the name of budget cutting and fiscal rectitude; the decisive change has been growing appreciation of the comparative virtues of voluntary, spontaneous social organization, especially in areas where questions of conduct and ethics are paramount.
These days our risks are those of success, and of forgetting the particulars of what brought us to where we are. We are told that there is a third way to democratic capitalism, as if capitalism is something that must be tamed by government rather than the other way around. Empowerment is in such promiscuous use that it may be employed to describe something bestowed by a government program or a tax credit part of the continuing effort to establish a direct and unmediated dependency of families and individuals on the state. Most serious is the resurgence, in trendy nineties garb, of the conceit that our astounding material prosperity is a mechanical, technological phenomena on Internet autopilot, divorced from, and inconvenienced by, issues of character and culture and our Western heritage of religious teachings and ethical precepts.
Michael Novak, however, does not believe in compartmentalization. His great appeal, like that of the Pope himself, is the almost eerie serenity with which he appreciates and interprets modern aspirations without ever budging an inch from ancient, exacting truths. He has continued to write brilliantly on questions of business ethics, social and economic policy, culture, and religion. He has even taken on that one issue that dwarfs all others in challenge, delicacy, and potential for social disruption the religious instruction of one’s own children in his latest book, Tell Me Why, coauthored with his daughter Jana.
It is immensely gratifying to everyone at AEI that this prophet, who has been honored in so many countries, should finally be honored at home. His Boyer Award is inscribed:
To Michael Novak
Theologian, philosopher, and moral ecologist
Who has brilliantly cultivated gardens of religious and secular thought;
Who has instructed and inspirited democrats and capitalists
And other fighters for freedom and social justice.
The award consists of the first complete published works of St. Thomas More, a fifty-year project of Yale University whose first volume appeared in 1963 and whose twenty-first and last appeared just three months ago. They are collected in a bookcase built for us by Robert Dowell of Stephens City, Virginia, a replica of a cabinet Thomas Jefferson had constructed for his use in the joinery at Monticello.
And for those of you who think it incongruous that Thomas More should be embellished by Thomas Jefferson, Michael Novak will now explain it to you, in his Boyer Lecture entitled God s Country, or, Taking the Declaration Seriously.
Christopher DeMuth is the president of AEI.
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